Surveyors of the Enlightenment


THE novelist Robert Coover, speaking of influences in American fiction, once remarked that apprentices of his generation found themselves (in the 1950s) grappling with two very different models of what the novel might be. One, Coover said, was Saul Bellow's realistic if picaresque ; the other was William Gaddis's encyclopedic . Writers my age (mid-thirties), however, don't have the luxury of a choice. Our problem is how to confront the influence of a single novelist: Thomas Pynchon.

Surveyor of the Enlightenment

Despite the reputation of Pynchon's magnum opus, (1973), many of my contemporaries came to him through his earlier work. His first novel, (1963), is mostly concerned with the search by one Herbert Stencil for a woman -- or place, or concept -- referred to in his father's journals simply by this initial. The action of the novel -- which also takes up Stencil's father, a network of European spies, and a Whole Sick Crew of American Navy wastrels -- goes as far afield as turn-of-the-century Egypt, southwest Africa during the First World War, and Malta after the Second World War, dealing along the way with contemporary Americana up and down the Eastern Seaboard. ripe with the kind of dense, symbolic imagery we associate with poets -- with T. S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens (Gravity's Rainbow likewise caroms off Rilke and Dickinson) -- and with the loose, improvisatory language of beat writing. It is by turns hilarious, slow, and utterly mesmerizing.
Portions of V. cannibalize the author's student work, particularly the two stories "Low-lands" and "Under the Rose." (Pynchon's later novel , published in 1990, opens dramatically -- with a character leaping through a storefront window -- in an image lifted from V.: "Here [was] one potential berserk studying the best technique for jumping through a plate glass window.") Repetitions haunt the entire oeuvre, so much so that Pynchon's work seems to exhibit a sort of "conceptual continuity," as the composer Frank Zappa named it, wherein each work builds on thematic and formal innovations -- and even the raw material -- of prior efforts.

Another example: (1966), Pynchon's masterpiece in miniature, like V. takes as its form a search. In Lot 49 the quester is a woman with the unlikely name of Oedipa Maas, who, engaged as executrix for the estate of Pierce Inverarity, a Hearstlike tycoon, inadvertently begins to uncover an international postal conspiracy dating back to Europe in the Middle Ages. Like V., Oedipa's story is rich with symbolism and leitmotif, in an armature often having to do with an idea practically trademarked by Pynchon: entropy, or the tendency of closed energy systems to move toward disorder. Again this is a borrowing from an early story by the author ("Entropy"); and it is reprised, in Gravity's Rainbow.

Whereas Pynchon's early novels are accessible, or at least crystalline enough to permit readers to follow them to their ambiguous conclusions, Gravity's Rainbow confounds readerly expectations utterly. The surrealism -- the eruptions of odd, unforeseeable events and voices; the doublings, triplings, halvings, and quarterings of characters; the chance procedures -- that occasionally colors prior novels emerges in GR as the dominant strategy. Pynchon's controlled third-person-limited point of view in Lot 49 becomes the fractal omniscience of GR. Primarily the narrative of Tyrone Slothrop, a GI in London during the Second World War who has the ability to predict imminent German bombing trajectories by erection, GR deals tangentially with hundreds of other important characters, with Russians, Germans, Africans, and Central Asians, and with settings such as Colonial America, turn-of-the-century Africa, and the United States of the early seventies before it dispatches Slothrop entirely, casting his fragmentary consciousness around the remainder of the book. (He fails to appear recognizably in the last fifty pages.)

What accounts for the perpetual hold Gravity's Rainbow has on the consciousness of American writers and critics? What accounts for the myth that has sprung up around it -- a myth that seems to have ensnared even the facts of the author's life, or, at least, our idea of those facts? What makes GR so crucial to the voyage of younger American writers? I'd contend that it's Pynchon's style, not his subject. Whereas the prose in V., Lot 49, and the early stories is occasionally inventive and arrestingly lyrical ("For it was now like walking among matrices of a great digital computer, the zeroes and ones twinned above, hanging like balanced mobiles right and left, ahead, thick, maybe endless. Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth"), in GR it is more than dazzling -- it's uncanny. It discards the usual limits on English and American prose. In fact, the writing -- notwithstanding the physics and hard science in a novel often fascinated with the intricacies of ordnance technologies -- seems to me the point of GR, its motivating force, especially as this language elucidates Pynchon's febrile imagination. Take, for example, the stunning opening page, with its nightmarish evocation of the London Blitz.

They have begun to move. They pass in line, out of the main station, out of downtown, and begin pushing into older and more desolate parts of the city. Is this the way out? Faces turn to the windows, but no one dares ask, not out loud. Rain comes down. No, this is not a disentanglement from, but a progressive knotting into -- they go in under archways, secret entrances of rotted concrete that only looked like loops of an underpass ... and it is poorer the deeper they go ... ruinous secret cities of poor, places whose names he has never heard.

American research libraries swell with monographs interpreting Gravity's Rainbow, and many of these monographs are taken up with the arcana of the novel -- the physics, the statistics, the theory, the citations (of Max Weber, of Gioacchino Rossini, of Pavlov). But if GR were merely literature of ideas (in the limited sense that Nabokov so often decried), we would think no more of this work than we do of Philip K. Dick's engaging science fictions. Pynchon's accomplishment is that he has found the perfect marriage of form and language for his rendering of Western consciousness.

Presented by

Saving the Bees

Honeybees contribute more than $15 billion to the U.S. economy. A short documentary considers how desperate beekeepers are trying to keep their hives alive.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.
More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In